Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Project Management Updates: Righting the Sinking Ship

Reports from the
Project Manager

I'm noticing that a high number of my updates have to do with moving vehicles--trains, roller coasters, and now boats. Here is what Renee's projects looked like when she hired me on as the Project Manager:

Renee's main problem was the inability to plan, structure, and focus her effort on finishing a story. We embarked together on a journey to crank out a high number of short stories and flash fictions in a short period of time in order to focus on the process.

Now, we look a little more like this:

That's not to say all is happy-go-lucky-hunky-dory-wahoo-yippee-skippy over here in project management land. I missed my last blog because we were deeply involved one of the stories that Renee now has out on submission, "Blood". I could say, I "missed" the blog, or more appropriately, I ran like hell and avoided blogging about that train wreck of a story. (There I go with the moving vehicles again.)

Let's take a look at this one:

See those horrible flats, jumps, and squiggles? That was Renee and I wrestling hard through the revision phases of this one. I'm not sure who won, but the battle is done.

No rest for the wicked (here's looking at you, Muse). We have two projects on the board right now. "Death" is done with the zero draft, and "Dates" is going to be plotted this week. I'll save dashboards on those two until my next update since I am officially classifying both as "Too Early to Tell".

Until next time. . .

Friday, June 26, 2015

Renee's Reading: Kin by Lili St. Crow

Well, it certainly has been a long while since I did a book review around here, hasn't it? I have a huge backlog of books I've been meaning to write up reviews for, but, like so much else, they always slip ever further down the to-do list.

In related news, my time turner seems to have been delayed in shipping. Again.


On to the review! I figured I'd get back into the swing of things with a book by my favorite author, Lilith Saintcrow (aka Lili St. Crow).

Kin, by Lili St. Crow
Full moon. Glowing eyes. And such sharp, white teeth. . . 

Ruby deVarre is Rootkin, and the granddaughter of the most revered clanmother in all of New Haven.

In the kin world, girls Ruby's age are expected to settle down and start a family. But settling down is the farthest thing from wild-child Ruby's mind--all she wants to do is drive fast with her friends and run free through the woods.

Then Conrad, a handsome boy from a clan across the Waste, comes to New Haven to stay with Ruby, and the sparks fly immediately. Conrad is smart, charming, and downright gorgeous. Ruby gets to know him more, she begins to realize something's. . . off. Like most kin boys, Conrad's temper can be a bit. . . short. But does he have to be so rough with Ruby--to the point of leaving bruises? On top of all that, Conrad seems to be isolating Ruby, until he all but forbids her from seeing her best friends Cami and Ellie.

And then the murders start. Someone is terrorizing Ruby's small woodland community, and now she is more alone than ever. Just when she starts to suspect her Prince Charming is anything but, she becomes his next target. Ruby's about to find out that Conrad's secrets run deeper than she could have ever imagined. . . 
Kin is the third and final novel in Lili St. Crow's Tales of Beauty and Madness series. (I didn't actually do a review for the first novel, Nameless, but there is one in the archives for Wayfarer, if you're interested.) And what a spectacular finale it was.

First, a warning: St. Crow's Tales of Beauty and Madness are dark. The kind of dark that reminds you that fairy tales were originally warnings, not animated musicals. The dangers that can befall the young, particularly at the hands of the older and more vicious creatures of the world, are a continuing theme in the series. The girls in this series aren't protected the way they should be. Their caregivers are conniving, indifferent, cruel, distant, abusive, and/or just plain evil. They are used and abused, both mentally and physically, and these stories are about them struggling blindly in very bad situations. They are not easy to read.

Just, you know, so you can be prepared.

Kin was not the story I expected going in, mainly because Ruby is not the character I'd grown accustomed to from reading the other two novels. We quickly discover that she wears masks for the world, hiding her true nature under the faces she thinks everyone wants to see, even her family and closest friends. Living that way seems like the best option to her--she has her reasons, which I won't get bogged down with here--but that kind of constant playacting takes a toll. It leaves her feeling trapped and alone, even while she's running free and surrounded by people who love her.

It also sets her up as a perfect target for abuse. It's easy to isolate and dominate someone who lives that way. They've already taken care of all the heavy lifting on their own.

Enter Conrad, the mysterious stranger from another clan, sent to play Prince Charming. He looks at Ruby and sees all that anxiety and self-doubt she's drowning in, and he immediately steps up and saves her from herself, making her see how perfect and special she is all on her own.

Or not.

Seriously, were you not paying attention when I said these stories were dark warnings of abuse and cruelty?

Of course Conrad doesn't ride in on a white horse and save the day. He finds all of Ruby's hidden vulnerabilities and he exploits the hell out of them. He manipulates her, stalks her, hurts her, and does pretty much everything he can to destroy her spirit and independence. It's downright terrifying to read.

St. Crow writes them both masterfully. They are very real, very strongly developed characters who burrow deep into your brain. Ruby in particular has so much life I'm surprised the pages didn't bleed with it. Which just makes it that much more terrible when Conrad starts taking all that away.

And speaking of Conrad, oh he's just so shudder-inducingly creepy. His abuse is so dangerously subtle at times. He twists and maneuvers and works Ruby into a place that's totally off balance, so when his darkness really starts showing through, it's nearly impossible for her to do anything but fall.

The world of these stories is also brilliant. So rich with little subtle details that work perfectly together to bring the whole thing to life. We got to see it through a somewhat narrowed lens in this book, as most of the story takes place within the clan's small semi-isolated society, and that was fascinating. I feel like St. Crow could write a dozen more books about this world and there would still be things to learn about it.

The plot in this one reminded me of heating up a tea kettle. At first it seems like nothing is happening and you're just standing there trying not to stare at it, because some part of the back of your brain still thinks that watching a pot makes it refuse to boil. Then one or two lines of steam drift out. A little humming sound starts to build. And then all of the sudden it's a roiling mass of bubbling chaos screaming fit to wake the dead.

It's possible I have a more adversarial relationship with tea than the average person.

There were a few points in the story that bumped funny along the way for me. And I would have liked a few more details about things that were going on off the page, particularly those things Ruby learned about after the fact. But that's not St. Crow's style. I've learned that there will always be a few questions in her novels that I just won't get the answers to. Her worlds are annoyingly true-to-life that way.

My overall thoughts: a very well-drawn main character, a creeptastic bad guy, a trilling story, and a brilliant world. All in all, this was a fantastic novel capping off a fantastic series.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Magic Bullets, Panaceas, Quick Fixes, and Other Things You Won't Find Anywhere

noun ad·vice \əd-ˈvīs\
guidance or recommendations concerning prudent future action, typically given by someone regarded as knowledgeable or authoritative.
I've talked about various pieces of writing advice here and there before. Most of the time, my opinion can be boiled down into this: nothing works every time, your mileage may vary, write what you want to write.

I attended a session at the Spring Fling conference last year about tightening prose. The presenter offered up a number of tips and tricks for trimming the fat out of a manuscript. Strengthening verbs and rewriting passive constructions into active ones. Minimizing dialogue tags. Watching out for explanations after the fact. Things like that.

All good bits of advice. I really enjoyed the presentation and I still have the handouts she gave us on my desk for reference. But there was one aspect of the session that I really hated. It was nothing the presenter did. It was the audience.

Every single time she'd bring up another idea for tightening text, half a dozen hands would shoot up in the air and argue a specific example for when that idea wouldn't work.

"Rewriting this phrase in active voice uses four fewer words and focuses the reader's attention on the character. . . "

"What if you're trying to keep something from the reader as part of the suspense?"

"If you've just shown two characters having a fight, you don't then need to show one character repeating every detail of the fight to someone else. You can just say 'Jane told Bob about Amy's insulting behavior' and be done with it."

"Yeah, but sometimes how a character tells someone about something can reveal a lot about them."

"Cut down on the unnecessary, mundane stuff. The reader doesn't need to see your character's drive to work and hear about all the red lights they hit and what song was playing on the radio. When you character arrives at work, the reader will assume they used whatever means of transportation they needed to in order to get there."

"A drive scene can do a lot for worldbuilding though, tell the reader what kind of place the character lives in, whether they can afford a car or maybe they have to take the bus instead, stuff like that."

It went on and on and on. Even as I sat there getting frustrated, I found myself chiming in from time to time, like we were all under some kind of weird group hypnosis.*

I love writing advice. I respect the hell out of any professional who takes the knowledge they've gained through the years and gives it back to those of us still struggling to find our own path to success. Good writers seem to love writing about how they do what they do and you could spend hours every day just soaking all that knowledge in. The writing community is brilliant that way.

At the same time, eliminating all your adverbs, rewriting every passive construction, and/or adding more white space to your pages isn't going to fix every pacing problem. Cutting two out of every three dialogue tags might just leave your reader confused as all hell. Showing, and not telling, every single thing can yield a very shallow tale.

None of those pieces of advice, good advice though they may be, is a 100% effective guaranteed path to writerly fame and fortune. Writing is not assembling a prefab bookshelf or balancing a checkbook or sticking flooglebinders on the ends of shoelaces. There is no official instruction manual.

There shouldn't be. Storytelling is an art form. It's a creative pursuit. It has to be able to change and grow and adapt every minute of every day, because the people who make it and the people who consume it change and grow and adapt every minute of every day.

It's important to remember that there is no magic wand here. Everyone seems to think there is--if you Google "how to write" you get over a billion results--but the sad truth is that there is no perfect formula or foolproof plan to make your writing better. There is no one true path. There is no single answer.

Stop looking for it. Take the writing advice you're given for what it is: advice. A recommendation offered by someone who has gone before you. Take it in, learn its lesson, adapt it for your own style, and then move on.

*That group hypnosis is something I like to think of as "newbie-proving". You get a bunch of relatively new writers into a room and start talking about craft, say at a critique session or a class or, in this case, a conference, and all of the sudden we all have to start showing off all the things we think we know. As if by vomiting up very specific but ultimately useless examples, we can prove to everyone that we're really smart and savvy veterans instead of ignoramuses who just graduated from Google University. Behavior which, of course, just proves our newbie status far better than wearing a blinking neon sign over our heads ever could have.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Abstract Thoughts: And Now We Wait

Brilliance from the
Idea Salesman

Renee has two stories out on submission right now. The waiting is very hard.

She's working with the Muse on another project, so she's not just sitting around waiting for her email to ding. Because that's what you're supposed to do, right? Keep moving forward, get the next project going, always be writing, all that stuff. There are moments when the anxiousness of having her words are out there seeking professional approval jumps up and flicks her in the ear or kicks her in the gut or something. But for the most part, she's being creative and focusing her energy elsewhere.

It's all very healthy and productive. Yay.

I, on the other hand, am getting kinda bored. Most of the short fiction publications we're looking at don't accept simultaneous submissions or multiple submissions. So one place has one story and one place has another story and now there's nothing for me to do but sit here and twiddle my thumbs.

I've never really understood the point of twiddling thumbs. I mean, what are you supposed to do? Just watch them loop around one another? Not only is it a pointless waste of time, it's not even engaging enough to be distracting. All I'm doing is staring and my thumbs and thinking about how I'm not staring at Renee's email.

At least grass grows and paint dries. They're doing something, albeit very slowly. Thumbs just...twiddle.

And I don't even have thumbs, really, so one could argue that mine aren't even doing that.


Monday, June 15, 2015

Abstract Thoughts: My Evil Twin

Wisdom of an
Inner Editor

Renee is just coming back after a two-week writing break*, so there isn't really much for me to report in terms of recent goings on. I've instead decided to take this opportunity to discuss with you all a perception that has been bothering me for some time.

Or it would have done, were I the type of abstract given to being bothered by the perceptions of others.

I, as you know, am Renee's Inner Editor. My primary role is to work through the drafts Renee generates with the Muse. We smooth out plot lines, polish the language, clarify character motivations, etc. And then, once things are as perfect as we can make them, we pass the completed story off to the Idea Salesman.

I am not the enemy. I am helpful.

The Muse, the Idea Salesman, and I are all different forms of Inspiration. We seek to draw out Renee's best art and encourage her to showcase it for the world. We may not always agree on the best path to success, but the overall goal is the same.

But there is another abstract living up here in Renee's head and she is most definitely not helpful. The Critic is a malicious spirit, a darker kind of Inspiration. Her sole purpose is to destroy Renee's creativity. To make her question her every writerly move. The get her so bogged down in doubt that she cannot find her way through it. To leave her paralyzed by fear, of moving forward or moving back.

We very rarely mention the Critic and she is generally kept confined to her cell room. She does not have blogging privileges. As a result, you may not know that the Critic and I are, unfortunately, identical twins. Of a sort. We don't actually look anything alike. My facial features are much more in line with conventional standards of physical beauty, if that sort of thing is important to you.

And you have much better legs, IE.

Shut up, Idea.

What? You're the one who's got that whole pencil skirt and high heels thing going on all the time. You obviously know you've got great legs.

My choice of professional attire is completely irrelevant to this topic. Now go away. I suspect there's a sexual harassment seminar somewhere that you should be registered for.

As I was saying, my sister and I have a certain degree of physical resemblance. But, being voices in Renee's head, that doesn't really matter. It's not as if anyone can see us. The problem is we also sound exactly the same.

The Critic does not care at all about making Renee's prose better. She doesn't look for subplots that need more follow through or characterizations that lack dimension. She has no interest in refining language or balancing paragraph structure. The quality of Renee's writing means nothing to the Critic.

If we aren't vigilant about keeping her locked away where Renee can't hear her, she slips out onto Renee's shoulder and whispers dark little thoughts in Renee's ear. Just a few, at first, little hints of hesitation that seem perfectly reasonable. Then, once she's sure Renee is listening, she grows bolder. Stronger. She twists the truth and paints a thin veneer of logic over her lies.

And, because she sounds just like me, Renee believes her. Renee follows her right down into the darkness and gets lost there. Before any of us even realize the Critic has slipped past the guards, Renee is scrapped a year's worth of work and is rocking back and forth in a corner, thinking about maybe just coloring or baking cookies for the rest of her life instead.

That kind of damage takes months to undo. And once everything is back on track, it always takes Renee a little while to really trust me again. Which would be hurtful. If I were the type of abstract given to being hurt by these kinds of things.

And so it's difficult for me to hear horror stories of Inner Editors locked away in closets or starved or chained up in basements. 99% of the time, the Inner Editor is innocent of all wrongdoing and the writer in question has a Critic skulking around unchecked.

Writers, be aware (and beware) of your Critic. A Critic sounds just like your Inner Editor, except all the advice is steeped in shame and bitterness and disapproval. Instead of bringing forward your best work, the Critic magnifies your faults. And the Critic is the one who belongs in maximum security lock down, not your Inner Editor.

* Renee's daughter had a birthday, so there was a party to host and out-of-town family to entertain and such like that. Her insistence on putting her children and other family members ahead of the rest of us on the priority list is highly offensive. Or it would be, if I were the type of abstract given to taking offense.